The Anglo-Saxon poems, “The Wanderer,” “The Seafarer,” and “The Wife’s Lament”
The Old English, or Anglo-Saxon, era of England lasted from about 450-1066 A.D. The tribes from Germany that conquered Britain in the fifth century carried with them both the Old English language and a detailed poetic tradition. The tradition included alliteration, stressed and unstressed syllables, but more importantly, the poetry was usually mournful, reflecting on suffering and loss.1These sorrowful poems from the Anglo Saxon time period are mimetic to the Anglo-Saxons themselves; they reflect the often burdened and miserable lives and times of the people who created them. The Anglo-Saxon poems, “The Wanderer,” “The Seafarer,” and “The Wife’s Lament,” are three examples how literature is mimetic, for they capture the culture’s heroic beliefs of Fame and Fate, the culture’s societal structure, and religious struggle of the Old English time period: making the transition from paganism to Christianity.
In order to understand how these poems mirror the Anglo-Saxons’ lives, one must know a little history about the culture. In the fifth century, the inhabitants of the island of Britain hired German mercenaries to defend them against their warring neighbors, the Picts and the Scots. 2 After having defeated the enemies, the pagan Angles, or Saxons, revolted against their former allies, the Britons, killing everyone, no matter what their status or occupation, destroyed towns and buildings, and drove out Christianity, the Britons’ religion. The conquerors were Angles, Saxons, Jutes, Franks, and Frisians, but they all had a similar culture so they became known as Anglo-Saxons. 3
Anglo-Saxons set up Germanic kingdoms, each one ruled by a lord. In the new Anglo-Saxon society, the strongest bonds were not between a husband and wife, or parents and children, but were between a lord and his kin.4 The Germanic comitatus was made up of men who served this lord with a fierce loyalty and would selflessly fight for him.5 They were his warriors. The comitatus “stressed the loyalty of a thane to his chieftain and treated exile and outlawry as the most tragic lots that could befall one. This secular sense of loss is keen in The Wanderer.”6 Not only is the loss of a lord evident in “The Wanderer,” but in “The Seafarer” and “The Wife’s Lament” as well.
The poem “The Wanderer” speaks of a man who has been exiled from his clan, and is now forced to roam the land alone. Separation from his fellow kinsmen and lord seems to be the worst fate imaginable. The man speaks of his great loss, remembering the time when he was happy with his liege,
When friendships are no more. His fortune is exile,
Not gifts of fine gold; a heart that is frozen,
Earth’s wisomeness dead. And he dreams of the hall-men,
The dealing of treasure, the days of his youth,
When his lord bade welcome to wassail and feast.
But gone is that gladness, and never again
Shall come the loved counsel of comrade...